- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2001

Just what is wrong with America's public schools? This question was being bandied about the country two years ago, after two teen-agers opened fire on their fellow Columbine High School students, killing 13 persons and arousing the grief and indignation of the entire country.
After even the most knowledgeable adults confessed to some bewilderment over understanding the mind of the average American teen, Elinor Burkett, a former Miami Herald reporter and college professor, went to work. Choosing Prior Lake High School in suburban Minneapolis, she spent the 1999-2000 school year "in the halls and malls where America's Dylan Klebolds and Eric Harrises spend their days." Klebold and Harris were the two Columbine killers.
"I got the kids' eye view," she says. "They think that adults are somewhere between stupid and crazy."
These are children who saw the movie "The Scarlett Letter" instead of reading the book. For contemporary fiction, they studied John Grisham instead of the more ponderous Joseph Conrad.
"Grisham is faster paced and sexier for them, I guess," she says.
Her findings, reported in her new book, "Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School," outline a scenario of frustrated teachers, rebellious students and parents who ignore their offspring's obnoxious conduct. What's more, she writes, high schools operate under a straightjacket of enforced diversity and official niceness that casts a pall on student spontaneity.
"There is a malaise, a low-lying depression all the time," she says. "What passes for rebellion is a kind of nagging, unpleasant passive-aggressiveness. There's no life, there's no energy, there's no spark of excitement or interest. But there's a kind of deadening.
"I think we have so evangelized these kids, in order to give them this perfect fantasy adolescence, so that they'll have no scars, no emotional problems. They've had careful self-esteem training since they were 2. They're told exactly what to feel about everything and they have to be happy all the time," she adds.
Mrs. Burkett quickly earned the students' trust and was named queen of the senior picnic at the end of the year.
"I was the coolest kid in the school," she says. "I was this 52-year-old person who moved there from New York and hung on their every word."
Teen-agers were bored with their vapid existence, she wrote, and teachers turned a blind eye to the omnipresent student cheating and copying from each others' papers. Students were numbed to banners festooning the walls with sayings like "You Are Unique" and "A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste."
"I don't want to teach kids what to feel," says Mrs. Burkett, who has a doctorate in Latin American history. "I want to teach them history. Because if we teach them history and we teach it well, they will learn the price of intolerance and they will learn to be patriotic. We don't need to tell them [how to do] that.
"We don't have to teach them patriotism, either. Teach them American history, about the world and how rotten most of it is and it's hard not to be patriotic. And teaching them self-esteem? That is a ridiculous concept. Teach them to earn self-esteem so it's theirs," she says.
This is not the first time an adult has reported on the parallel kingdom that is the American high school. The 1982 teen comedy "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" was based on an investigation by Cameron Crowe into the realities of California's high schools.
Mrs. Burkett said real change will come about if teachers give some students the low grades they deserve. But that is unlikely to happen soon, she added, as schools are beholden to parents who provide the votes for bond issues that fund the schools.
"The school is captive to the community which is captive to values of society, which is every parent wants the model child you are your resume and they all have to have perfect A's," she says. "If the school doesn't give it to them and tells them that's not the truth, then they get mad at the school.
"I don't think I had begun to glimpse how incredibly deep the problems were in terms of PC [political correctness]. There are cheerful little signs posted about diversity, but there was no diversity. The school has only white people, other than one or two black kids and some Koreans. There were no Jews in this community. The message the kids get are that adults are hypocrites."
American education is mindless, she says, compared with the tough academic standards in Bishek, Kyrgyzstan, where she is spending the year teaching college journalism on a Fulbright scholarship.
"I'm sitting with my students in Bishek and from the beginning of this crisis, they have asked these incredibly good questions and made these amazingly perceptive comments," she says. "Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim country and they say Islam is going through the equivalent of the Enlightenment and how there's this struggle with traditionalists. They ask intelligent things.
"And I kept on flashing back to moments in 'Another Planet' where the kids were asked where Jamaica was and they said, 'the Pacific.' The students in Kyrgyzstan are very poor. They barely have blackboards. But they know stuff: geography, geopolitics and basic European history, even though they don't live in Europe. And the kids at Prior Lake know nothing," she says.
"One of the kids in the book is in the Marine Corps. He is on notice he might go to Uzbekistan. He sends me an e-mail asking, 'Where is that?'
"My heart breaks for these kids. It was easy to indulge ourselves in not educating them much when we thought they could grow up in the same complacent suburbs and have nice hot tubs. They need to be able to analyze what the president is doing and understand why he's doing it in order to agree or disagree," Mrs. Burkett says.
"We're going to have to count on these kids to help us figure the way out of the next Afghanistan," she adds.
When she brought up her concerns on geography to a group of English teachers in the faculty lounge, "We don't consider geography to be very important," they told her. "We don't believe in teaching kids to memorize. That's rote learning. We teach kids to reason."
She retorts, "Like you can't teach kids to reason and memorize at the same time?
"I asked them, 'How do you learn irregular verbs in French if you don't memorize them?' They said, 'Maybe they don't need to learn them.'"
She says, "We're treating these kids like idiots. They know how to memorize. They memorize the names of their favorite rock stars, they memorize all kinds of things for video games. They memorize with no problem. How do you learn to analyze if you have nothing to analyze if there is no information?"

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